Kelly Cini – Reading for a Bachelor’s Degree in Law (Honours) at the University of Malta
Published on 21st December 2020
With all the global upheaval that 2020 has brought with it, it is interesting to take a look east-ward, where right between Poland and Russia, the state of Belarus has now been in turmoil for more than 4 months. On the 9th of August 2020, President Alexander Lukashenko declared that he had once again won the election for president by a landslide victory, with state TV exit polls claiming that he had gained 79.7% of the vote1. This announcement was met with mass protests in the streets of Minsk and other areas of the country, with hundreds of thousands of protestors denouncing the election as being neither free nor fair and claiming that the results have been tampered with. These protests have been countered by a heavy handed response from the authorities, drawing international criticism over consistently severe breaches of human rights2. The situation in the streets has led many to wonder whether “Europe’s last dictator” is finally on his way out after 26 years in power.
In order to understand the current situation, one must not forget that these are not the first presidential elections which have been disputed under the Lukashenko government – they’re not even the first elections which have elicited mass protests. Experts argue that the election which saw him go from an obscure parliamentarian to president in 1994, was the first and last truly democratic election held in Belarus.3 After the fall of the Soviet Union, and in the context of the turmoil that this caused in Eastern Europe, Lukashenko ran on the promise of renewed stability and an end to the entrenched corruption of an elitist few (among other promises). The irony here is stark when one considers how he immediately started to manipulate the newly formed democratic processes of the country to make his transition into autocratic rule more palatable. He wasted no time extending and consolidating his power, as in 1996 a referendum took place which gave him practically unlimited powers, following which he later amended the Constitution so as to remove the two-term restriction on the office of the president, an action which was seemingly legitimised by a referendum held in 2004.4
Throughout his 6 terms in office, Belarusian elections have repeatedly been condemned by the international community for having failed to meet an array of thresholds for fair and transparent democratic elections. Most recently the Election Observation Mission sent by the OSCE to oversee the early parliamentary elections held on the 17th of November 2019, criticised the way that the elections took place and pointed out an array of shortcomings ranging from the pre-election period to the counting of votes, stating that
“There was an overall disregard for fundamental freedoms of assembly, association and expression.” 5
The many problematic issues mentioned in this report are among the many reasons why many have opposed the results and as stated before this is not the first time. For example, looking at the situation which has been unfolding on the streets of Minsk gives one a sense of deja vu. Almost a decade ago in 2011, a similar sense of discontentment among voters with the way the 2010 election was held, led to thousands gathering in the streets Wednesday after Wednesday for “silent protests”.6 Reports about these protests shock the reader not only because of their brutality but also because they are so uncannily similar to those describing the ones currently ongoing – arrests of political opponents, peaceful protestors being dragged into unmarked buses, violence being used against peaceful protestors and hundreds of people being detained.
Additionally, as with the rest of the world, the impact of COVID-19 has not missed Belarus. When Lukashenko adopted a laissez-faire attitude towards the pandemic by adopting a strategy of not cancelling any events, including football games and military parades, this was used by the opposition to highlight how out of touch with the people he has become.7 However, there is now a real risk that the virus will be used as a facade to close down borders, preventing members of opposition from seeking asylum in neighbouring states.
However, perhaps the biggest catalyst of this whole movement has been none other but Svetlana Tikhanovskaya who with the support of two other women running to unseat Lukashenko, has managed to unite the opposition. Tikhonovskaya is the wife of a political blogger who was arrested and barred from running for office by Lukashenko in the run up to the election – unsurprising considering that such repression of opposition has become quite commonplace under his rule. However what has been surprising is the huge support his wife has gathered from those who have become disgruntled by Lukashenko. After deciding to run for office in her husband’s place, she has become the face of a movement, gathering tens of thousands of supporters at her rallies.8 Wanting to give the electorate at least the impression of freedom of choice, Tikhanovskaya was allowed onto the ballot, perhaps because it was assumed wrongly that this would be insignificant in the long run. This is evident by the way Lukashenko referred to her as a “poor little girl”9. More than 4 months later, it seems that he was wrong. Perhaps historians will call this instance in history as yet another moment of a woman being severely underestimated. The people rallied behind her and her message and she became the face of a new mentality and mostly as representing the end of the Soviet-era oppression Lukashenko represents. The result of the election which showed her getting only 6.8% of votes, was never going to be a result which the hundreds of thousands who placed their hope in her were going to accept.
In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Lukashenko had said “There will be no pink, orange or even banana revolutions in Belarus”10. With the way things are shaping it seems that with this comment he has missed the mark. Brutal showings of violence by the authorities and his heavy-handed response towards protesters are only serving one purpose, to give the people a renewed sense of purpose and they have shocked the apathetic into action. Protests continue to rage on with the Belarusian people having adapted to this new way of life. Even if he manages to quash the protests for a while, it seems unlikely that he will escape this mass opposition unscathe. The Belarusian people are showing a level of resilience in the fight for democracy that proves that in a terribly flawed system, the power remains in the hands of the people at the end of the day. The rights these people are fighting for are not granted to them by any government, they are innate, and fundamental and cannot be taken away. Only history will tell if this truth will prevail.
Disclaimer: the views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Society.
1 Belarus election: President Lukashenko set to claim landslide win (August 9 2020) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-53707011
3 Manaev Oleg, Manayeva Natalie, Yuran Dzmitry, ‘More State than Nation: Lukashenko’s Belarus’ (2011) 65(1) Journal of International Affairs pg 94.
10 Radio Free Europe. Radio Liberty Newsline, 10 January 2005 as seen in Manaev Oleg, Manayeva Natalie, Yuran Dzmitry, ‘More State than Nation: Lukashenko’s Belarus’ (2011) 65(1) Journal of International Affairs pg 94.